We know little or nothing about the process by which Clough made his way into the Middlesbrough first team, but once he was there, what he did was memorable, and the imagination backfills something similar into his time in the reserves.
It’s not the number of goals that Clough began to score that is most noticeable: his annual totals weren’t that unusual for 1950s Division Two, and in any case Clough emerged at the same time as Jimmy Greaves, who was doing something similar against stronger opposition. What sets Clough apart is that he scored his goals measurably faster than anyone else before or since. His first 200 league goals came in just 219 matches (compare Alan Shearer, who took 389 games to match Clough’s total).
It must have been obvious to England’s top clubs, long before the end of Clough’s first season, that a talent had emerged in the north east similar to that of Jimmy Greaves in London. Yet he was allowed to remain at Middlesbrough for five seasons after his debut – despite reaching the England team in three.
This is almost certainly a case – another case, one of hundreds, merely more extreme here – of football careers being damaged and distorted by the retain-and-transfer system and the maximum wage. Owing to the maximum wage, and ruling out corruption, there was no real financial incentive for players to move up in the game. The young Bobby Charlton would not have been paid appreciably more than the young Clough, for all that their careers were unfolding at quite different levels.
The playing incentive to move up – the desire for recognition and trophies – had the “retain and transfer” system in the way. A club was under no obligation to transfer a player, whatever the player, or other clubs, might think about it. Should a player not be offered a contract at the end of the season, he would be out of work – yet his former club could hang on to his registration (basically, his legal right to play) should they wish. Clough might make any number of transfer requests – and did, becoming notorious for wanting out at every turn. But Middlesbrough could afford to ignore him. His popularity with supporters would have meant that the board would not have liked seeing him dropped to the reserves, but otherwise Clough would be theirs until they decided otherwise.
It might be an interesting exercise for you to port those circumstances across to your own job. Imagine a scenario in which you could, as now, resign at will. But should you resign, your right to work in your field isn’t yours at all: it belongs to your former employer, who can choose whether or not to hand on that right to your next employer. Unless they do hand it on, you can’t work and you can’t earn. The comparison with slavery made by campaigners against the maximum wage was appropriate. By the time the end came for all features of this heinous system (and the last vestiges went only with the Bosman case) it was too late for Clough.
Of course, a “big” club with money behind it might have wanted to “come in” for the second brightest young English striker (and what a period it was, to enjoy both Clough and Greaves at the same time – until February 1958, English football had a Shearer, too, in the form of Tommy Taylor). But there’s no evidence, apart from Sunderland’s interest in 1961, that there was ever any chance of this happening. Clough was an intelligent man with a mind of his own and a drive, however desperate and ill-seated, to express it at the expense of his relationships with others. He’d have hated the point being made, but he was in some ways a middle class character in a working class world, and, as such, a frightening and unsettling figure.
Most managers of the time would have found a Clough type in their changing room intimidating and divisive. The only English manager during Clough’s career who conceivably might have dealt with the situation was Don Revie, but the Don wouldn’t become a player-manager until 1961. It’s notable that the big “awkward-case” transfer of the 1960s, that of John Giles, saw Giles (another smart, outspoken man) move from Manchester United to Revie’s Leeds. A changing room containing Jack Charlton, Billy Bremner, John Giles and Brian Clough is hard to imagine without sweating. But Clough would have thrived in such an atmosphere.
Revie wasn’t there when Clough needed him. By the time Don had money to spend, Clough had suffered his great career-ending injury. Revie was a Middlesbrough man, and would have been aware of Clough; no one else had the sense or the courage to take him to the level he deserved.
Clough twice topped Division Two’s scoring charts, with 42 goals in 1958-59, and 39 goals in 1959-60. To put that achievement into perspective, Jimmy Greaves top-scored in Division One in 1958-59 with 33 goals, then again in 1960-61 with 41. Both men were scoring at the rate of a goal a game, or as near as makes no difference. In the ten years since the post-War resumption of football and Clough’s top-scoring for the first time, Division Two’s top scorers achieved 30, 23, 32, 33, 35, 46 (Derek Dooley), 39, 42 (John Charles), 33, 34, 44 (Arthur Rowley), and 33 goals. In short, Clough doesn’t stand out altogether, but he is shoulder-to-shoulder with famous names. And the top-scorer charts don’t reflect second and third. Clough kept the goal-a-game ratio going for his entire playing career.
What’s more, he did it playing for poor sides. Middlesbrough had a poor defence, even for Division Two, and no one of note besides Clough playing in front of it. His goals were not aided, as were Greaves’, by the presence of a Blanchflower or a Mackay.
And just the speed with which he scored… RSSSF place Clough 42nd in the all-time Football League scoring tables. (That’s higher than Ian Rush, a fact full of atmosphere). His career is listed as nine years long, but the realistic number, catering for his late introduction and injury, is six (1956-62). The 41 men above him in the list needed 18, 15, 13, 21, 15, 19, 15, 20, 16, 15, 16, 14, 14, 17, 12, 14, 14, 16, 15, 16, 18, 16, 17, 19 (Shearer), 12, 15, 19, (however many Sheringham will eventually accrue), 11, 20, 13, 17, 12, 13, 11, 14, 16, 17, 11, 14 and 20 seasons respectively to beat him. Clough is a full five years faster onto the list than his closest rivals. Only two men ahead of him are Edwardian players, but a full 18 were in a position to take advantage of the 1925 offside rule change, which led to several years’ worth of goalscoring mayhem (including Dixie’s 60 in a season and Camsell’s 59).
Clough left Middlesbrough in 1961, two years after the last of his two England caps. Sunderland, he hoped, would provide him with a path to the First Division and a return to the international side. With that pile of statistics above in mind, isn’t it incredible, amazing, to read that sentence there? These are, we’re told, the good old days, when proper standards applied. What’s good about the national and international neglect of a striker like Clough, about his being tied down by the twin ropes of a disgusting contractual situation and an immoral attitude to talent and intelligence?
When eventually he managed it, Clough’s departure from his home town club came in the period Larkin made famous for its interim, ante-room qualities: “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.”
Larkin was not being entirely honest when he claimed that it had all come too late for him. He’d have been better speaking on behalf of Clough. Both Larkin and Clough came to prominence in Yorkshire. Larkin famously saw it as a place to hide. Clough would have to leave it to save his own life – not once, but twice.